Is God an Eternal Torturer?

In the Catholic tradition there is a prayer known as the ‘Fatima Prayer’, so called because it is claimed it was given to the young children visionaries at Fatima in 1917, being one of a number of formal prayers, but this one being especially associated with the recital of the Rosary. The ‘Fatima Prayer’ goes as follows:

O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell. Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who are most in need of Your mercy.

If we are to believe the impact of this prayer given through an ‘apparition’, then it seems that the Blessed Virgin Mary herself, the mother of Jesus and ‘Queen of Heaven’, is directly acknowledging that there is a Hell and it is a place of ‘fires’. This would then seem to logically indicate that God is an eternal torturer since He fundamentally controls all reality, not just in this world but in the everlasting world to come.

Let me say straight away that I love the Rosary and pray it frequently and include the Fatima Prayer at the end of each decade. But – and it is a big but – I slightly modify the Fatima Prayer as follows:

O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the wiles of Hell. Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who are most in need of Your mercy.

One could also use ‘lies of Hell’ as an alternative. The point I am making is that I simply do not believe that Hell is a place of demons and somewhere where sinners are roasted by roaring fires that never go out.

For me Hell does exist – it has to, if we are to be truly free to accept God or reject Him. But it is essentially the place where someone who chooses hate over love all through their life on earth would end up. God does not ‘send’ anyone to Hell – rather, the individual chooses Hell because of the way they have lived their life. Hell in this sense is quite simply the everlasting absence of God – a place of eternal desolation and meaninglessness, a place of utter unfulfilment and devoid of comfort. Horrendous indeed. But no fires!

Some traditional Catholics and Protestants may counter that Jesus speaks of Satan ‘falling like lightening’ (Luke 10: 18). They would therefore claim that Hell is not controlled by God but by the arch demon, the very personification of absolute evil: Satan. It might then follow that, if Satan commands Hell, then he can make it a place of everlasting torture? I don’t see how that lets God off the hook. I say this because God could snuff Satan out in a moment, and by allowing Satan free reign, then God is implicated, and allows torture beyond imagination.

In actual fact I don’t believe that there is such a being as Satan. Moreover, no human is totally bad or totally good. We are all of us a mix of good and bad. That in itself casts some doubt on whether there is actually anyone in Hell. Such a human would have to be a most unusual person indeed.

Traditionalists may then counter that if no one is in Hell there is no real human freedom and a lot of the Bible is false, which it cannot be. It goes without saying that we should never take the Bible literally, but seek to interpret it, and there may even be numerous valid interpretations. Scholars would also point to Jewish literary mechanisms in the Bible like ‘strong words’ – these are where Jesus and others use graphic images (cut off your hand if it causes you to sin!) to ram home a particular point, while never intending the literal message. Most Jews of Jesus’ time would have easily understood what He was getting at. And then again, the human authors of scripture are quite capable of exaggerating and using ‘poetic licence’ to make their own spiritual points.

Does Hell exist? I think it has to, as a logical end point on the spectrum of free will. Is there anyone in Hell? Hmm, not so sure. Does Satan exist? Personally I think not. Hatred and love, evil and good, are much more nuanced in human life.

In the last analysis, we all of us will entirely depend on God’s mercy. None of us can brag about being worthy of Heaven. The Good News is that God’s mercy is limitless and He is always desperate to apply it. Read about it in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11 – 32).

What do you think about these issues?

Martin

Living Outside the Camp

In the Old Testament, Leviticus 13, we read how the Israelites, along with all other ancient groups, struggled with the terrifying disease of leprosy. They of course had no cure for the disease and were well aware of how contagious it could be. Consequently the only action their community could take was to demand that the poor sufferer leave the community and go away, far enough away to be no further threat to the group. And the passage ends with the awful words: “they must live outside the camp.” And that was a life and death sentence of poor food, shelter and safety, and gnawing loneliness to go along with the dreadful progression of their disease. There was no alternative.

In the gospels of the New Testament, as long as Jesus walked among men he could miraculously cure lepers, and thereby readmit them to the camp. That brief time was truly amazing and life affirming for the unfortunate sufferers. But Jesus left this world and leprosy continued to plague the lives of ancient peoples.

What have these Bible readings got to say to us today? And indeed, thanks to medical science, we can now cure leprosy or at the very least halt the progression of it.

The scriptures readings do, and always do, have a profound meaning for us today in our real world of technology, busyness and strife. The key to this is realising that leprosy is a metaphor for us – a metaphor for our personal leprosy, which we can call ‘sin’.

Nowadays, people are still ostracised, and forced to “live outside the camp” if they fall foul of society’s accepted mores. The person of ill repute or the person who has publicly brought shame on themselves, will swiftly be abjured and in a number of subtle ways, be isolated. This could be by being sacked by an organisation or government, banned from social media, or even put in prison, and – in some countries – put to death.

The good news of Jesus still holds true. The key message of the scriptures concerning leprosy is that – for God – no one is doomed to being “outside the camp.” In fact, it is often the ‘public sinner’, the one who has fallen or failed, the ‘lost sheep’, the ‘repentant sinner’, who is all the more welcomed into the camp of God, both in terms of eternal life in heaven and inspired human acceptance in this life.

Ring it from the housetops! The God we believe in is all merciful, and delights in readmitting the fallen, back into the company of fellow sinners, and back in His company for all time to come. Alleluia!

Martin

Dignity

There is much talk nowadays about assisted dying and people with terminal illnesses taking control of their own death process, with some people choosing to end their lives at their own time and place and volition. For many folk, the thought of dying in protracted pain, with perhaps extensive medical interventions in the form of tablets, drips and needles, is intolerable. Allied to this is the frightening loss of function: the ability to walk and talk, the ability to dress and undress oneself – in other words, the restrictions on one’s personal freedom and quality of life. The argument goes that it is not length of life that really matters but the quality of that life.

I do get these points and I have to say that I speak from a reasonably healthy life stance, and can only honestly wonder what my attitude would be if I became terminally ill. But one aspect of this whole debate that really rankles with me is the repeated use of the word ‘dignity’. We hear of the importance of ‘dying with dignity’, and dignity is almost a watchword or slogan for those who promote assisted dying and euthanasia.

I want to ask: what is dignity? Is this a case of using a word without any real attempt to understand its true meaning?

Let me use a case in point, a case that is sadly all too well known to those of us who live today. During World War II the obscene series of events known as the Holocaust saw millions of innocent people killed for no other reason than their religious heritage and ethnicity. We are told that thousands upon thousands of mainly Jewish people were stripped naked and herded into the gas chambers where they died in extreme terror and despair.

It might be said that their terrible end was the epitome of indignity: crowded, naked, terrified and dying in suffocating agony. Terrible as that surely was, I would contend that – when it comes to dignity – the poor victims had an inner dignity which nothing could take from them. They had no option, no help, no hope of rescue, and in that awful situation they were anything but undignified. The absence of dignity lay with the men and women who forced them into the gas chambers.

What I really mean here is that dignity is an inner quality, which, when one possesses it, cannot be taken away unless the person surrenders it themselves. Corrie ten Boom in her memoir of the Nazi persecution of the Dutch Jews relates how her elderly father kept his dignity in spite of the repeated humiliations done to him, even to the point of death.

To come back to the current issues with terminal illness – and even old age infirmity which for some people is also a case for choosing one’s death process – let me put it in stark terms. If a person needs someone else to take them to the toilet, to help them use the toilet and then to clean and dress them again – is that really taking their dignity away? Really?

While no one would choose to be in such a situation, if and when it becomes a reality, I would suggest that whatever else happens, the individual hasn’t lost any dignity. The likelihood is that they didn’t choose to be in that situation and there is little they can do to change it. They have done nothing wrong and should have no fundamental reason to be embarrassed. It of course greatly helps if the person assisting is respectful and kind, but if not then that is a deficiency in the carer.

A quick check of the dictionary definition of dignity: “the quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect”. And again: “inherent nobility and worth”. For a Christian, each person’s worth is inherent because we are children of God. No infirmity or disability can ever take that away from us. Cruel folk may try to demean us but, hurtful though that would be, it does not destroy our inner worth – even if we ourselves feel worthless.

We all have dignity as the daughters and sons of God, and we all need to respect that dignity in everyone no matter their life situation. If we don’t, the problem is with us, not them.

Whatever about the pros and cons of choosing the time and method of one’s death, let’s not pretend that being cared for in the final stages of life, or even throughout a disabled life, it follows that the individual lacks dignity. Or is “dying with dignity” actually a slogan used to try and hide a deeper human truth?

What do you think?

Martin

For the Winds and Sea Obey

The story is told in the Gospels (Luke 8: 22 – 25) of how Jesus and his disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee when a storm blew up and, with Jesus asleep, the disciples, some of whom were experienced sailors, were terrified of drowning, and of how they woke him up and he “rebuked the winds and sea”, and the storm immediately subsided – leaving the disciples, who had already witnessed incredible miracles, to ask themselves just who this man really was that even the elements obeyed his command.

This story has always moved me deeply. Thinking about why this is, my thoughts go back to the village church in Ireland where my father was born and brought up. Although from a farming family himself, my father’s village is a fishing village, situated on the wild west coast of County Clare, facing the vast Atlantic ocean. Quite appropriately, the front of the altar cloth in the very centre of the village church proclaims: “For the winds and sea obey”, being a straight quote from the Gospel story.

I can only begin to imagine how important and sustaining this message was to the fishermen of the village who worshipped there – as they daily risked their lives as they set out on the unpredictable water in their small currachs (the traditional boats of that area). Perhaps something in my deep memory and soul resonates from my background although I was born and brought up far away from that beautiful but rugged place?

Incidentally, but I think relevant to this blog, is the amazing story of how the small church came to be built in this isolated and historically poor part of Ireland. In 1907 a French ship, the Leon XIII, was sailing past the bay when a storm caused it to hit dangerous reefs and start sinking and the lives of the crew were in extreme peril. The village fishermen, seeing their plight, bravely set out in their flimsy currachs even as the storm continued to rage – at great risk to themselves – and somehow managed to save most of the crew. Incredibly, after clinging on to the wreckage, the rest of the crew were all saved by another ship the following day.

Afterwards, a national fund raising was started to finance the building of a church as the villagers, poor folk of strong faith, had long wished for a church. And so, a church was built for them, and the ship’s bell of the Leon XIII (later found at auction in London) stands in the sanctuary of Our Lady, Star of the Sea church to this day. And the church’s tall round tower (a traditional structure in Celtic Ireland) is visible for many miles, both inland and out in the ocean – giving perhaps a very concrete and tangible reminder of a spiritual reality.

As a non swimmer myself and someone with a very healthy respect for the sea, I can only wonder at the selfless courage of those men back in 1907 and at such a fitting legacy that they left for us.

You might say, well God certainly didn’t quieten the storm for them, but I think that’s to miss the point: a God who can command the mighty elements is also a God who can deliver on a promise of eternal life and whose Son has demonstrated that not even death can separate us from His love. The Gospel story is ultimately a clear call for us to trust and keep faith in God. It would surely have meant so much to those men.

This Gospel story moves me to tears. Maybe this is due to my own heritage? Maybe we can all allow different Gospel stories to resonate with our deepest feelings and influences, and thereby be brought closer to the God who – in the last analysis – is in control of all our destinies?

As the old song says: “Hear us as we cry to Thee, for those in peril on the sea.”

Go well, with love,

Martin

Men’s Rites of Passage

I’m just back from five days in the beautiful Perthshire countryside where I experienced the Men’s Rites of Passage (MRoP – cf. malejourney.org.uk). This is part of the wider men’s renewal movement (Illuman) founded by Richard Rohr in America.

Imagine a group of thirty male ‘initiates’ of different ages and a group of male ‘elders’, all sharing a profound journey into what it means to be a real man. It is actually impossible to describe what is a deep experiential process – there are no words to fully describe it, and indeed we were told not to talk afterwards in any detail about what we went through, not because it was some sort of secret or subversive society, but precisely because of the intense personal self disclosure and the necessity of respecting confidentiality, and also because it must keep its impact for any future men wanting to undergo it.

In a very brief summary, what we went through was a truly profound shared journey into our deepest selves, trying to articulate our personal brokenness while supporting each other, and through a number of amazing ways coming more into touch with our core selves and our gifts and power as men. This involved two key processes: ritual and ‘council’. Both of these deserve separate blogs themselves, but suffice it to say that these have been formulated by distilling the best of different cultures’ initiation rites of boys and young men. Richard Rohr himself has spent years researching the transformative power of these rites, both from current traditional cultures and also from the most ancient cultures.

All these societal initiation forms recognise that young males need to be taken away from their communities and from female consolation, taken frequently into nature (wilderness) where they are shorn of their normal biases and vanities, and then, being isolated and surrounded by silence, allowed to realise their relative smallness and vulnerability, and then to be mentored by wise elders into what true manhood requires of them. The boy typically emerges as a man, and is then encouraged to take his positive place in the community, where he can especially use his power for the good of all.

In our current western societies, there are virtually no vital experiences for boys to discover their manhood, and we often see the results in delinquent and abusive behaviours and adult dysfunctional men, especially in their roles as husbands and fathers. Consequently, many children grow up with ‘father wounds’ where their own fathers are often abusive or absent. The men’s movement founded by Richard Rohr is trying to address these deep-set wounds and society’s failing of its young males.

I can only express how challenging but how incredibly life affirming these past five days have been, and I have no hesitation in recommending to men of all ages to consider partaking in the MRoP wherever they can find them locally (or even further afield, though there are many groups opening up across America and the wider world). The MRoP, as formulated by Rohr and other mature men, are not directly religious or denominational in any way, so men of all religions or none, all traditions and spiritualities, are welcome.

It’s worth noting by the way, in case all this sounds very sexist, that women by and large don’t need these challenging, painful and difficult rites, precisely because they are usually much more in touch with their own female powers through the immediacy and body awareness of menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and child rearing. Cultures of all types and antiquities have held different and usually less invasive rites for young women, recognising women’s intuitive and more immediate contact with the vital aspects of body and nature awareness. In brief, it’s men’s critical tendency to stay immature and failure to conform to communal responsibilities that make such male initiation rites imperative.

I hope to say more about the incredible power of ritual and ‘council’ in later blogs, but suffice it to say just now that I both embraced my giftedness as a man and also recognised that a process has begun in me that may take months and years to properly explore and incorporate into my daily life.

To fellow initiated men I say ‘go well brothers’.

To men struggling or seeking, I sincerely invite you to consider MRoP.

Learn more at:

Illuman – Men transforming men

To our sisters everywhere, I say thank you for putting up with us men, and please continue to challenge us to discover and accept our god-given roles as your partners and lovers.

Martin